(Updated March 1 at 3:10 p.m.)
A Ranger-qualified, Bronze Star-wearing captain filed suit against the Defense Department on Monday seeking permission to wear a turban and maintain his long hair and beard while in uniform in adherence to his Sikh faith — a permanent waiver already awarded to at least three other Sikh soldiers.
Army lawyers agreed to postpone those tests after being questioned Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell, according to a news release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in cases involving religious freedom and expression.
The tests will be delayed until Friday, said a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, which also has attorneys representing Singh. A final decision on the tests could come Wednesday.
"We believe the Court will end the Army's discriminatory ban on observant Sikhs in the military," Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, said Monday. "Sikh Americans have proven time and again that they can serve with honor and excellence."
The suit, filed in Washington, D.C., seeks to stop these tests on various grounds, including assertions that they limit Singh's freedom of speech and right to practice his religion.
Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Defense Department spokesman, said via email that DoD "provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so," but that the Pentagon did not comment on ongoing litigation.
Capt. Simratpal Singh shaved his beard and cut his hair before entering the U.S. Military Academy a decade ago, a decision he has regretted, he said. He decided late last year to seek a waiver that would allow him to grow his hair and beard, as well as wear a turban, in adherence to his Sikh faith.
Photo Credit: Jovelle Tamayo/Sikh Coalition
Singh decided to request a waiver to Army appearance standards in October, the complaint states, about a month before he was scheduled to report to Fort Belvoir. He's removed his turban and cut his hair and beard throughout his career in uniform, beginning with his admission to the U.S. Military Academy. The suit states that he'd inquired about a waiver before beginning classes, but that he'd "succumbed under pressure" and adhered to grooming standards.
It was a decision Singh "constantly regretted," according to the filing, but one he lived with throughout his time at West Point, graduating in 2010.
He completed Ranger School without any special dietary requests, giving the meat included in his rations (many, but not all, Sikhs are vegetarians) to other soldiers and losing 30 pounds in the process, the complaint states. He would earn a Bronze Star for leading more than 150 route clearance patrols in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and added several other commendations throughout his career.
After his initial request for religious accommodation, Singh received temporary waivers that eventually were extended to the end of this month. The suit hopes to make the waivers permanent, similar to those granted to at least three other Sikh Army officers, all in medical professions.
A Hofstra University student recently won a lawsuit allowing him to maintain his long hair, beard and turban while an ROTC member, although the ruling applied only to that program and did not offer any guarantee of a waiver for Iknoor Singh should he earn his commission.
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.